15.10.1995

On being a token 'straight' at homosexual debate

LYNETTE BURROWS on being a token 'straight' at homosexual debate
 
Unflattering gays
 
Andrew Sullivan, the British editor of the liberal American magazine New Republic, has made three modest proposals about assimilating homosexuals into mainstream society. They are that the institution of marriage should be open to them; that they should be allowed to join the military; and that they should be allowed to adopt children.
 
He has laid out his argu­ments in a new book, Virtu­ally Normal, and he expounded his opinions to a largely homosexual audience at a Guardian debate at the Cafe Royal in London on Wednesday.
 
I was invited to take part in the debate, as the token blot on the landscape. I was the only member of the panel who was neither homosexual nor an enthusiastic supporter of gay rights. As such, I served the useful purpose of deflecting some of the unseemly antagonism which might have come Sullivan's way from those who dis­agreed with his efforts to offer them the chance both to join a monogamous commit­ment and to bring up some­one else's children.
 
Andrew Sullivan is obvi­ously a sincere idealist and a particularly engaging per­son. He is also a deeply reli­gious Catholic, and this, I guess, is what makes him gentle and kindly.
 
There was not much of that sort of thing about on the night. When he paid me the mildest of conventional com­pliments, he was met with raucous laughter. But he at least understood my princi­pal argument which was that, notwithstanding his logical and semantic distinc­tions, and his philosophical arguments for absolute equality under the law, most people had a repugnance for homosexual genital activity; a repugnance that was instinctive and so only mar­ginally under the control of reason.
 
In this, most people are in the same position as that claimed by homosexuals themselves. Homosexuals want the right to express their instinctive selves; but they should allow others the right to have instinctive feel­ings respected.
 
Alas, past experience has shown that a homosexual audience has no sympathy with this argument. Fay Weldon once remarked of some of the women she knew that, if they had not been femi­nists, they would have been rapists; and one knows exactly what she means.
 
A typical collection of homosexuals displays the same po-faced bigotry, the same denial of any common ground and the same herd instinct to attack which have informed the very worst of the anti-homosexual mobs in the past. This was certainly the case last week: my argu­ments were largely ignored, and I was accused of being simply dangerous. It struck me, as I feel sure it struck Mr Sullivan, that if I had been the only homosexual in a large group of hostile heter­osexuals, someone would have stood up for me out of a civility and courage that are usually very strong among the English.
Still, one will just have to set aside thoughts about what sort of soldiers, not to mention substitute mothers, such a temperament would make. Of more immediate interest is the question of our democratic tradition.
 
If we are not to be gov­erned by laws which reflect the deepest beliefs of the majority, what are we to be governed by? Any democ­racy is based upon the fact that there will always be a substantial minority who will not agree with certain laws.
 
Compromises have to be made in the interest of the system, and tolerance has to be exercised not only by the strong towards the weak, but vice versa.
 
The sad thing is that, were it not for their demanding the right to affront the straight world, homosexuals would realise that they have got what they reasonably asked for: the freedom to be themselves as adults and in private.
 
If only that had been enough, there would not be what is obviously a growing feeling against them. I have no doubt that many homo­sexuals can and do live devoted and faithful lives, and that they have done so for hundreds of years — but only because they did not feel it necessary to trumpet their sexual behaviour.
 
It must be the same for themilitary. The success of homosexuals in being all the things that soldiers are sup­posed to be — with the added benefit, perhaps, of having a paternalism enhanced by their orientation — has been kept absolutely within bounds by the laws against open homosexuality. I do not know how anybody can be certain that this would not change if they were allowed to follow so many other homosexuals into gross dis­plays of sexual behaviour. It is that which has sunk their image in civilian life, no mat­ter how blameless many of them may be.
 
It is ironic, too, that homo­sexuals do not seem to con­sider what family life would be like if parents insisted on telling their children what passed between them in the bedroom. In this supremely natural facet of our lives, absolute discretion is maintained — not for moral reasons but out of instinctive reticence. For most people, by far the most objectionable side of homosexuality is not what they do, but their insis­tence on making it public. In this they truly part company with the mainstream, and hence they are excluded from it.
 
To his credit, Mr Sullivan dismissed the argument of his fellow panellist who claimed that the idea of homosexuality being wrong was only invented in the 18th century, and that before then we had all been happily bisexual. He acknowledged that there was a danger in passing what, to him, would be idealistic laws — among them equal treatment for all — since that might lead to a tremendous backlash. He conceded that it was extremely unlikely that any political party would be able to put such proposed legisla­tion into its manifesto and still get elected, but thought such changes could still be made, probably via the Euro­pean institutions, and that in a few years' time people would wonder what all the fuss was about.
 
It is the most tremendous risk and should remind him, as an educated Catholic, of the conversation Thomas More had with his son-in-law on the subject of doing away with man-made laws with the object of gaining what you believe is a greater good. "And if you cut down all the laws, do you think you could stand upright in the wind that would then blow? Yes, I would give the devil laws — for my own safety's sake."